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Supreme Court Says State Sovereign Immunity for Copyright Infringement Prevails

SCOTUS handed down its opinion in Allen v. Cooper.

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The United States Supreme Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit in finding that states retain sovereign immunity from claims of copyright infringement. The Court handed down its opinion in Allen v. Cooper, a copyright infringement suit against the state of North Carolina. We previously reported on the status of this suit last summer.

The facts of the case are simple. In 1996, a marine salvage company named Intersal, Inc. discovered the shipwreck of Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge off the coast of North Carolina. The wreckage of the pirate’s ship had been undisturbed since it was run aground by Blackbeard and his crew in 1718. The state of North Carolina (the shipwreck’s legal owner) contracted with Intersal to conduct recovery operations. Intersal hired local videographer, Frederick Allen (“Allen”), to document the efforts. Allen’s company made several videos and took many pictures of the recovery operations. Allen registered the copyrights in all of the works he created. North Carolina published some of Allen’s copyrighted works online, and Allen sued.

North Carolina argued that states are immune from copyright infringement cases under the principle of sovereign immunity, while Allen argued that Congress abrogated sovereign immunity for copyright actions. The District Court held that state sovereign immunity for copyright suits was properly abrogated by Congress, but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed.

We have reported on other cases in recent months where state-owned entities have made the same arguments as North Carolina (Dermansky v. University of Colorado, part I, part II; Yesh v. University of Minnesota, part II), with one defendant even asking for a stay of litigation until the Supreme Court handed down its much-anticipated opinion in this case.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court held that Congress did not properly abrogate states’ sovereign immunity for copyright suits in the Copyright Remedy Clarification Act of 1990 (“CRCA”). The Court employed parallel reasoning to it's decision in Florida Prepaid Postsecondary Ed. Expense Bd. V. College Savings Bank, 527 U.S. 627 (1999). In Florida Prepaid, the issue was whether Congress had properly abrogated states' sovereign immunity for patent suits through the Patent Remedy Clarification Act ("PRCA"). In that case, the Supreme Court held that Congress had not done so. Citing precedent, the Court stated that in Order for Congress to properly abrogate sovereign immunity, it must do two things: (1) Congress must enact "unequivocal statutory language"; and (2) some constitutional provision must allow congress to encroach on the states' sovereign immunity.

In Allen, the Court acknowledged that, "[n]o one here disputes that Congress used clear enough language [in the CRCA] to abrogate the States' immunity from copyright infringement suits." However, the Court held that neither the IP clause of the Constitution, nor Section 5 of the 14th Amendment could support the CRCA's abrogation of state sovereign immunity for copyright suits. The pertinent language of the PRCA and the CRCA were found to be identical, so the Court used the precedent and reasoning set in Florida Prepaid . The Court held it could not reverse the earlier decision without “special justification,” and it found no such justification in this case. Therefore, the Court affirmed the Fourth Circuit’s judgment.